Are Dolphins Really That Smart and Does It Make Us Like Them More When They Are? (2019-2020)


Studies suggest that anthropomorphic framing of animal cognition can lead to positive changes in human attitudes toward conservation. However, no research has been done on a species, such as dolphins, that does not have a human-like appearance (as opposed to most primates).

This Bass Connections project will study how dolphins use energy to solve cognitive problems and how the perception of dolphin intelligence by the public shapes attitudes toward their conservation. This research will represent the first experimental study assessing how beliefs about animal minds shape our psychology regarding conservation.

Project Description

This project team will design and implement two related experiments that will be conducted at the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon, Florida, during Spring Break 2020. Team leaders will host a joint weekly seminar through the 2019-2020 school year to focus on the planning of these two projects.

The first study will focus on comparing the total energy expenditure of several dolphins while they participate in a series of cognitive tasks and during a control period. This cognitive energetics project will take advantage of Dr. Herman Pontzer’s expertise using doubly labeled water to asses total energy expenditure. The doubly labeled water method is a noninvasive technique that is considered to be the gold-standard method for measuring daily calorific needs. Since no previous research has examined dolphin total energy expenditure, this project will provide the first cognitive energetics data ever collected on dolphins.

The second study will include an experimental survey of Dolphin Research Center visitors to evaluate whether the perception of human-like cognitive skills in dolphins influences visitor attitudes and conservation-related behaviors. This study will take advantage of the center’s education program that attracts hundreds of visitors each week. The project team will conduct an experimental survey in which half the visitors are told that our research findings suggest dolphins have human-like cognition while the other half will be told we are finding that dolphin cognition is not human-like. Researchers will then assess how this framing alters visitor attitudes and their tendency to donate to the Dolphin Research Center and dolphin conservation.

Anticipated Outputs

Two manuscripts for publication; student-led seminars and poster presentations for research dissemination; grant proposals for larger external funding based on pilot project results

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this team will be comprised of first-years, sophomores and juniors with a range of interests in the biological and social sciences. Seniors are eligible to apply; however, priority will be given to younger applicants as we would like this to be the first of many experiences these students have with science at Duke. We also hope to recruit students representing groups that tend to be underrepresented in STEM fields. Vanessa Woods will be the team's project manager.

Students looking to acquire knowledge and experience in animal behavior, nutrition, physiology, cognitive science, education, group processes and conservation will have a lot to contribute and gain from this project.

While there are no academic prerequisites, prospective applicants should have a demonstrable passion for one or more of the above areas.

All students selected for the team will have the opportunity to travel to the study site in Marathon, Florida, to participate in data collection activities during Spring Break 2020.


Fall 2019 – Spring 2020

  • Fall 2019: Begin weekly joint seminars to discuss papers on animal cognition, brain evolution, energetics and conservation psychology relevant to proposed cetacean research
  • Spring 2020: Continue weekly seminars to design cognitive energetics and conservation psychology research projects; take Spring Break trip to Dolphin Research Center in Marathon to conduct cognitive energetics and conservation psychology experiments; continue weekly seminars to discuss results; begin developing conservation psychology manuscript for publication; discuss next steps for cognitive/energetics research; plan proposals for further funding based on pilot project results; prepare student-led seminars or poster presentations for research dissemination around Duke’s campus or at Dolphin Research Center


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters


Image: Tursiops truncatus (Common Bottlenose Dolphin/Tuimelaar) by Bas Kers (NL) licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Tursiops truncatus (Common Bottlenose Dolphin/Tuimelaar).

/faculty/staff Team Members

  • Brian Hare, Arts & Sciences-Evolutionary Anthropology*
  • Herman Pontzer, Arts & Sciences-Evolutionary Anthropology*
  • Vanessa Woods, Arts & Sciences-Evolutionary Anthropology*